One Person’s View of the New OneFPA Network Initiative

It’s possible that I’m the only person whose bullshit detector started ringing alarm bells when I first read about the Financial Planning Association’s marvelous new OneFPA Network initiative.  First, there was the breathless prose:

“The OneFPA Network aims to harmonize the power of unity and the benefits of diversity to serve our members’ interests with more alignment and greater integration.”

“Through Centralized Functionality, we will leverage the power of unity to integrate key administrative functions, empowering volunteer leaders to focus on their passions in support of a strong member experience.”

“Through Participatory Governance, we can harness the power of FPA’s collaborative and diverse culture by engaging more volunteer leaders in our strategic direction setting process.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many buzzwords condensed into such density before, and of course I wondered why the FPA had never before enjoyed unity, alignment and integration before now. 

So, of course, I delved deeper—and encountered an even denser thicket of buzzwords and high-sounding phrases:

“Empower volunteer leaders and staff to focus on their passions.” (What was discouraging them from doing this currently?)

“Deliver a consistent member experience across all communities.”  (Meaning all the chapters would do the same thing?)

“Elevate FPA’s brand awareness nationally and in every community.” (Isn’t that a PR function?  Why hasn’t it been done up to now?)

“Realize greater buying power to support all FPA members and communities.” (Not sure how you can improve on the simple efficiency of having the home office negotiate discounts on behalf of the national membership, and chapters negotiate appropriate local discounts at their discretion.)

So I decided to take “The OneFPA Journey,” and discovered that, as far back as 2014, the FPA board had hired an outside consultant to do a thorough assessment of the FPA chapter system.  The consultant found it lacking—that is (the website tells us) it uncovered “operational and cultural issues impeding FPA’s growth and success.”  This, I found astounding.  The chapters are what is impeding the FPA’s growth and success?!?  The chapters are where the action is.  The FPA, so far as I can tell, has the best chapter leadership in the financial services space.

Anyway, the following year, the FPA Board acted on this consultant’s findings.  It created seven task forces, which must have somehow come together to submit a plan at the FPA’s February 2017 board meeting.  At that time, we are told, the Board “embraces the OneFPA initiative as a top organizational priority and the transformational three-year goal of the association.”

The amazing thing, to me, is how unaware I was of this important initiative that was being hatched at the FPA Board level.  Did you hear about that at the time?  If not, why were the members not kept in the loop? 

So what, exactly, was the goal behind all this high-sounding buzzword talk?  Over the years, I’ve learned that the less directly an idea is presented, the more that vague benefits are touted in the most excited terminology, the more the presenter fears that this is actually a bad idea that the audience will reject.  Call it Sales 101.

Was that the case here?  I found it remarkable that after reading all this material, I still didn’t actually know what the initiative consisted of.  As I read on, it was all about the terrific benefits, but nothing actually told me what actual change they were proposing.  (Is that a red flag?)

The following page on the OneFPA Network website (https://www.onefpanetwork.org) was more of the same.  “Imagine if… FPA’s volunteers were more empowered… we could make more impact on regulatory and legislative issues… we could deliver a richer member experience… we all embraced FPA’s Primary Aim as our sole organizational purpose…. Let’s do this together.”  There’s a discussion of “The Power of Alignment and Integration.”

Moving on to the FAQs, I became even more confused by the answers to Overview Questions.  I basically learned that the foundational principles of the OneFPA Network is “To create more alignment and integration.”  This will foster “Participatory Governance and Centralized Functionality.”

Finally, in the questions under “Participatory Governance,” I encountered, nearer the bottom than the top, a startling question:

“Why must we get rid of local legal entities?” 

The answer:

“Legal entities at the local level add a layer of legal responsibility and bureaucracy that is not necessary.”

Wow. 

The initiative in a nutshell

Here is the picture that emerges, not always very clearly, from all the grandiose sales prose that the FPA has sprinkled throughout this initiative:

-Something called a TNC (“the new chapter”) will replace each of the FPA’s 86 legally chartered chapters and 2 state councils.  It is not clear (to me, at least) whether the current divisions will be maintained, or if new chapters will be created by splitting up existing chapters.

-All chapter activities will be coordinated at the FPA’s home office, and in return the local leaders will be given more say in how the overall organization is managed through participation in a new “Council” which will have between 90 and 100 members.  This new Council will serve as a “strategic sounding board.”

-Each TNC will retain its current board and leadership positions.  But…  “There may be changes to local TNCs,” we are told, “but when that happens and where that happens is impossible to determine now.”  As I translate this: buy into this idea, and don’t worry about what we do with your (no longer a chapter) in the future.

-The TNC finances will be “integrated” with national’s—and I think this is where the FPA leadership has reason to worry about acceptance at the chapter level.  Chapters will have control over their budgets, we are told, but “The OneFPA Resource Coordination Committee will… help TNCs determine the most effective ways to develop and manage their budgets.”  Any local surpluses—say, from a successful annual chapter-level conference—will be sent back into one centralized bank account.

-Local sponsorships will be subject to new oversight and sharing with national: “The OneFPA Strategic Partnerships Committee will assess and recommend the most effective approach to the strategic partnerships and how the monies get distributed.”

-To repeat: “All FPA money, including FPA national money, will be housed in one bank account under one accounting system.”  “Headquarters and TNCs will be pooling their finances so that it is everyone’s money that lifts the whole of FPA.”

– All local staff will become FPA employees or independent contractors—that is, employees of the consolidated headquarters. “Current chapter staff must become FPA staff.”

Probable Impact

The only possible explanation for the breathless prose couching what is, fundamentally, a very simple idea, is that the FPA leadership really REALLY REALLY wants the membership to buy into the dissolution of the legal chapter entities.  Otherwise they would do what you and I do every day: explain our proposal, and then list some of the reasons why we think it’s a good idea. 

Leading with all the reasons why this unstated thing is a great idea, before introducing the idea, speaks volumes about how this is a sales effort rather than a simple proposal.  And if, indeed, the FPA board kept quiet about this initiative for four years, you wonder about its confidence that this was, indeed, something the membership would regard as healthy for the association.

But what is the FPA actually selling here?

I suspect, but don’t know, that the FPA home office covets the financial resources of the chapters.  If this is correct, then the OneFPA Network could be a danger to the viability of the association, because, quite simply, most of the value of FPA membership is coming to members at the chapter level, through local programs and initiatives.

Some of you know that I worked for a predecessor organization of the FPA: the International Association for Financial Planning.  (I edited Financial Planning, which was the association’s magazine at the time.)  We believed that the finances of our association rested on three roughly equal pillars: the magazine (typically about 40% of total revenues), the annual convention (roughly 35% most years) and the membership dues (roughly 25% or so, most years).

Looking at the current FPA, I don’t see that same healthy balance.  The Journal of Financial Planning will, in a good month, attract 10 pages of advertising.  A comparable issue of today’s Financial Planning will have 40-50.  Advertisers tend to flock where readers are paying attention, so this can be considered a direct reflection of how much the Journal is being read by FPA members.

Similarly, the 2018 FPA Convention attracted 31 exhibitors.  Our Insider’s Forum conference—a much smaller meeting—attracted more than 40.  When you attend the TDA LINC Conference or Schwab Advisor Services’ IMPACT conference, the exhibit hall resembles a mid-sized city.  The AICPA’s annual ENGAGE conference’s exhibit hall completely fills a packed Las Vegas hotel convention hall.

The FPA also manages the annual Retreat, which was once quite a successful conference.  I have been told, anecdotally, that it has been losing money recently.

The point: the FPA national headquarters has a number of potentially valuable, cash-flow-generating resources that are (I would argue) not being managed to their full potential.  Meanwhile, the local meetings I’ve attended—the Northern California Regional Conference, the local annual meetings in Chicago, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Orange County (CA), Connecticut and Phoenix—are booming.  Those are some of the best-managed, and visibly profitable, small meetings in the financial services space—and I suspect that other local chapter conferences can say, with pride, that they’re doing really well as well.

The best management of resources seems to be taking place, currently, at the chapter level, and this is where we find most of the engagement and energy.  Would it make sense to give that up and put the chapters under the control of the part of the FPA that has poorly managed its larger resources?

Bigger picture, most of the FPA members I talk with are members because of the local chapter connections, the CE credits they earn, the local sense of community, and a very good local annual meeting that attracts national-level speakers and healthy sponsorships.  I don’t hear much from FPA members who join because of something they get from FPA headquarters in Denver.  Those people may be out there, but I have somehow managed not to encounter them.

Prediction

I think most FPA members, from long experience with their sales-oriented competitors, recognize a sales job when they see one.  I would argue that the FPA made a strategic error in trying to sell (and sell, and sell) this OneFPA Network concept, and explain it later.

I also think it was probably a strategic error to keep this very powerful, transformative initiative under wraps for four years before suddenly unveiling it to the membership.  Maybe I’m the only one who has been kept safely out of the loop, but it seems from here like the FPA declined to share some very important thinking with the membership until the decision process was well down the road.  This communicates, to the membership, a lack of trust. 

(If you did hear about the initiative, and feel like it was discussed and communicated appropriately along the way, then I apologize for this inference; it is entirely possible that I was the only one who was kept in the dark.)

My prediction is that the FPA membership is not going to be supportive of an initiative that centralizes and consolidates both decision making and the finances of chapters with headquarters.  Allowing chapter leaders to function as a “sounding board” for the organization as a whole doesn’t sound like much of an improvement over the way things stand now.  Is headquarters saying that they don’t, currently, take the input of chapter leaders seriously and consistently?  If so, then how would a “sounding board” be any different?

I have, in the past, been criticized for not being “supportive” of the FPA, meaning I have, from time to time, disagreed with its direction and initiatives.  I would suggest that being “supportive” means looking out for the best interests of the organization and its future.  The membership can be “supportive” of the FPA by recognizing that the strength of the association is in its chapters.  If OneFPA Network is allowed to proceed, I believe it will weaken what the FPA currently does best, and put chapter leadership under control of the weakest part of today’s FPA.  Supporting an initiative that has that effect would not be “supportive”—at least in my mind.

My supportive suggestion is that the FPA, instead of raiding the piggy banks of the chapters, instead work harder to maximize the revenue-generating resources at its disposal—the conference, the Retreat and the magazine—which, under strong leadership, could provide considerable supportive cash flow to support vigorous headquarters-generated member benefits that would supplement the great work that is taking place at the chapter level. 

Strengthen those, keep the chapter system strong as it is today, and I think the FPA’s future would be extremely bright—which is something I think we could all support.